Stretch marks are those thin lines on your skin that are first red or purple, and then later turn silver or white. They materialize when the tissue below your skin grows faster than your skin can stretch. I develop them during my pregnancy and my teenage son is now growing so fast that he is suddenly getting some on his thighs. Your skin tears slightly because of the expansion of the tissue below it, and the lines that you see on your skin are those tears.
How Do Stretch Marks Form?
Your skin consists of three layers: the outer layer is called the epidermis and contains the pigment (color), the middle layer is called the dermis and contains sweat glands, blood vessels, oil glands, and the fibrous connective tissue that keeps your skin strong and dense, and the inner layer that consists primarily of fat is not relevant here.
Tearing in response to stretching occurs in the middle layer. The connective tissue in this layer contains cells called fibroblasts. These fibroblasts make collagen and elastin. Collagen protein fibers thicken your skin and keep it strong. Elastin are the elastic proteins that give your skin its elasticity. The tearing occurs when the collagen splits under pressure because the elastin cannot stretch as fast as the tissue below your skin expands.
Common Causes of Stretch Marks
- Weight gain of more than 30 pounds or 13 kilograms.
- Yo-yo dieting.
- High body mass index. Even if the weight is not gained very fast, it is still too much fat for which the skin has to stretch.
- Weight gain during pregnancy.
- Relaxin and estrogen, two main hormones during pregnancy, weakens connective tissue, including that in the skin.
- Pregnancy at a young age increases the risk.
- Fast growth during adolescence.
- A diet low in protein, as collagen and elastin are both proteins.
- Cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone, inhibits the fibroblast cells so that too little collagen and elastin are formed. Cortisone and corticosteroid drugs carry the same risk.
- Inherited genes increase your risk of stretch marks if your parents had it too.
- Muscle expansion from weight training.
Medical Stretch Mark Removal Therapies
- A tummy tuck. It definitely works. The surgeon removes all excess flesh from your abdomen, skin and stretch marks and all. You will have to pay $20,000, remain quiet during a two month recovery period, and live with the scars where the new skin is attached to your old one. Talk about chopping off a few of your toes with a sledgehammer while trying to eradicate the ants from your garden shed.
- Laser surgery, or fractional laser resurfacing. Lasers seem like a panacea for everything in the 21st-century, and in the case of stretch marks, it is relatively effective. The laser removes tiny strips of skin on the edges of your stretch marks in your dermis. This encourages your skin to form collagen to repair it and, along with it, the old stretch marks. The crux of the treatment is that it causes tiny wounds and the inflammation that goes with it. Your skin then responds to this by trying to heal itself. Its success depends on whether your skin can form enough collagen for the repair job. It is somewhat painful and normally done under a local anesthetic. The new wounds take about 10 days to heal. Each session costs between $2000 and $4000 and you may need as many as three. Crazy expensive, but relatively successful!
- Ultrasonic treatment or pulsed light therapy. An ultrasonic machine delivers heat to the bottom level of the dermis below your stretch marks. This contracts or tightens your skin, a procedure that forces the collagen closer together. The cracks are still there, just smaller and less noticeable. You need repeated visits over a period of months and each costs around $400.
- Microdermabrasion. A medical device blows crystals onto your skin that scrape away the top layer of skin, not dissimilar from what you do when you use a facial scrub in the shower. This does not heal the cracks of the stretch mark itself, as it does not touch the dermis. However, by removing the epidermis, it does prompt your skin to produce new skin cells and new pigment, which may at least cause the stretch mark to be covered with pigment that is the same color as your skin, rather than the white non-pigmented skin that used to cover it.
- Micropigmentation. This procedure leaves the stretch mark untouched, and just tattoos pigment the same color as your skin over it.
- Chemical peels. By this I do not mean the weak over-the-counter chemical solutions that remove only some of the top cells. The point of deep chemical peels is to use strong acid to burn away the epidermis and part of the dermis to trigger the skin’s natural healing operations to form collagen and fix the new wounds and the old stretch marks. In other words, the primitive version of Lasers that are a lot more likely to cause scars to deal with. Madness!
The Best Home Remedies for Stretch Marks
Those of us with the more realistic budgets and a more sensible suspicion of medical procedures can take some tips from the above. These are the best four:
- A solution must work in your skin’s dermis, not just on the surface.
- A solution must stimulate the growth of collagen to fill the cracks in the old collagen, and elastin to ensure that your skin remains elastic.
- A solution must ensure that your skin actually uses the newly formed collagen to seal the cracks by, for example, injuring it again to trigger its healing responses.
- A solution must remove the cells of your epidermis to encourage new cells with the right pigment to form.
This is easier than it sounds.
- Use a derma roller with 0.5mm titanium micro-needles once a month to puncture your dermis just enough to trigger a bit of inflammation. The wounds are microscopic – you are not removing cells in your dermis like the laser does, nor are you burning away skin like the chemical peels do. If you apply only light to moderate pressure, it is not at all painful (less so than pimples and acupuncture) and there is almost no blood. You can even use numbing cream beforehand if you like. If this sounds too scary, don’t bother with the inflammation, just cause blood flow to the area by massaging your skin above and below the stretch marks in the direction of the targeted area. Increased blood flow will also increase collagen production and use.
- Use a facial scrub on your stretch marks to remove some cells from your epidermis. This is enough to trigger it to produce new pigmented cells to cover the marks. Raid your kitchen for scrubbing material. I used uncooked oats in water, while my son opted for coarse salt in coconut oil.
- Apply a stretch mark removal cream that increases collagen and elastin production, that moisturizes your skin, and that promotes pigmentation.
Stretch Mark Removal Cream
The choice of a cream is the most important part of the treatment. Through many, many of hours of research, I could find only one that meets these criteria.
I read through hundreds of studies and listed all the substances that scientists have proved able to trigger the production of collagen and able to strengthen the dermis, increase its elasticity, and lighten scarring. I then dug through hundreds of manufacturers’ websites to find a cream that contained most or all of these substances.
Revitol Stretch Mark Cream was the only product on the list. Revitol prefers that people use it before they become pregnant or put on weight to prevent stretch marks, as this is where an intervention always works better. However, the same properties that allow it to prevent stretch marks can also remove old ones if you are patient and you combine it with either micro-needles or daily massage and a scrub.
Aloe Vera can increase collagen, elastin, and enzymes responsible for cell production while simultaneously decreasing deep lines and blemishes. Vitamin A can increase collagen and the enzyme metalloproteinase that stimulates the production of new cells. Squalene oil can decrease wrinkles and DNA damage, increase collagen production and moisture, and promote wound healing and elasticity. Vitamin D3 can reduce deep lines and dark and red spots while promoting elasticity. The vitamins C and A in grapefruit seed extract promote collagen production, and protect your skin against oxidative and inflammatory damage. Vitamin E is a super moisturizer and antioxidant.
The bottom line: if it is not packed with enzymes and vitamins A, C, D3, and E, it cannot heal stretch marks. That is why science shows that favorites like cocoa butter and olive oil do not work. Moisturizing is not enough!
Before you begin this stretch mark treatment, you must have healthy practices in place to reinforce it.
- Pick a body weight and stick to it (for those who are not planning to get pregnant again anyway). Those who want more kids must try to stay at the low body weight as dermatologists believe that those who are overweight develop more stretch marks during pregnancy than those who maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a high protein diet. Plant proteins are healthier than animal proteins, so stock up on beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, the grain quinoa, and spirulina powder for your smoothies. In my family, nuts and seeds go into everything. They are good proteins, and also good sources of the healthy omega fatty acids that your body uses to make oil.
- Moisturize regularly to ensure that your skin remains hydrated and free from unnecessary age-related damage. You should also drink approximately eight glasses of water per day. If you become dehydrated, your body will pull moisture from your skin first to keep your important organs hydrated. This weakens the connective tissue that is meant to support your skin’s structure and texture.
- Wear sunscreen to prevent your skin from being unnecessarily weakened by UV rays.
- Join a stress management program or buy some self-help books to ensure that your body produces no more cortisol than is necessary. Cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness therapy both work. In my family, we take a walk in nature every afternoon with our dogs to keep us stressful lives in perspective.
Stretch marks are unnecessary self-esteem killers that no one should have to put up with. I spent thirteen years trying to cover myself up on the beach in single-piece swimming costumes. They are now not completely gone, but they are close to invisible. My son’s new marks have healed completely. If your stretch amrks are bothering you, this treatment is definitely worth a try. Catch and attack the pests as soon as you notice them. If yours are old and have already turned white, just be patient. The lines will gradually become finer and your skin colored pigment will return. Soon enough you will feel proud to show off your body again.